Millions of Orthodox Christians enter Holy Week

An Orthodox interpretation of the waking of Lazarus from the dead. Photo in public domain

An Orthodox interpretation of the waking of Lazarus from the dead. Photo in public domain

SATURDAY, APRIL 27 AND SUNDAY, APRIL 28: Easter may be past for Western Christians, but the Eastern Orthodox Church is just heading into Holy Week with Lazarus Saturday and Palm Sunday. Traditionally, Lazarus Saturday is the day when hermits would temporarily leave their ascetic lifestyle behind, traveling to a local monastery for Holy Week services. Today, the Russian Church utilizes green vestments and church hangings for the weekend, symbolizing the renewal of life, while members of the Greek Church weave elaborate crosses from their Palm Sunday palms.

LAZARUS SATURDAY: FORESHADOWING RESURRECTION

Throughout the week leading up to Lazarus Saturday, hymns in the Orthodox Lenten Triodion detail the sickness and eventual death of Lazarus. According to the Gospel of John, the sisters of Lazarus write to Jesus as his sickness progresses; Jesus writes back, reassuring the sisters that the illness will not lead to death. Yet by the time Jesus arrives to see Lazarus, he has been in a tomb for four days. (Learn more from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.) As his family and friends weep, Jesus displays his full humanity by weeping with them. Then, he demands the stone be removed from the cave, and turns his face toward heaven for a conversation with his Father. Displaying his full divinity, Jesus commands, “Lazarus, come out!” and Lazarus emerges from the tomb, still wrapped in burial cloths. This traditional story is recalled in Orthodox communities worldwide. (Wikipedia has details.) For the disciples, this was a reassurance that Jesus would ultimately triumph through the coming Passion with Resurrection.

Although Lent has officially ended, most Orthodox Christians continue to fast, with permission now to add wine and oil. Russians customarily eat caviar today, while Greeks bake spice breads known as Lazarakia.

PALM SUNDAY: THE FULFILLMENT OF A PROPHECY

Now, the traditional story shifts for millions of Orthodox families: Liturgy and readings recall how, surrounded by clamoring crowds, Jesus rides into Jerusalem in triumph. After having awoken Lazarus, Jesus is seen as the one named in the prophecies of the Old Testament: the Son of David, the King who has come. The crowds lay branches before Jesus, in an act that is mimicked in churches to this day. (Read more from the Orthodox Church in America.)

The feast of Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem is one of the 12 major feasts of the Eastern Orthodox year.